Saturday, 9 July 2016

'The Year We Fell Apart' by Emily Martin

*This review will contain spoilers!* 

'Sometimes I think the white oak tree was listening that night last August. That it knows about the promises we made to each other up in our tree house. That it knows I kept only half of mine.' 
Setting up a betrayal filled enigma in the first paragraph, I couldn't wait to see which promises Harper kept - and, more importantly, which ones she had broken...

Harper and Declan have been best friends for as long as either of them can remember - those two and the third member of their trio, Cory. Harper has feelings for Declan, but it takes the death of his mother in a tragic car accident for them to finally get together, and they've only been dating for six months when Declan's father sends him away to boarding school - he works full time, and he can't juggle his career with the responsibility of being a single parent.
They try to make it work long distance, but what starts as long phone calls every night soon peters out to a few minutes a week. Harper's paranoid that Declan has met someone else, and she goes to a party with her friend Sadie, where she gets blackout drunk. Cory finds her with a guy, and she begs him not to tell Declan, but she can't tell Declan either and breaks up with him without an explanation. 
When 'The Year We Fell Apart' begins, it's been nine months since Harper dumped Declan, and they still haven't spoken. They successfully avoided each other when he came home for Christmas, but with him being back in town for over a month for the summer it's more difficult: particularly when Harper turns up to her summer photography class and Declan walks in a few minutes after her.
She's in denial that she still has feelings for him, but when he consoles her about her mother - who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and has just started going through chemotherapy - she can feel the old spark lurking under the surface. 
But does Declan feel the same? Is it possible for a year apart to really be forgotten?

Here's where I'm confused.
I finished 'The Year We Fell Apart' and I INSTANTLY hit the 5 star button on Goodreads. There was no hesitation in my mind. I smashed my mouse button harder than I have in a very long time. But I thought I'd give my review a few days to stew before I put it down on paper, because I didn't know how to put what I was feeling into words. 
Now? I don't feel anywhere near as impressed as I did straight after finishing it. 
Yes, this is a cute contemporary. It's the perfect summer read: the hot guy back from school for the summer, the long evenings spent hanging out with friends, the all-night drunken parties around the bonfire. Sadly, though, 'The Year We Fell Apart' is predictable.
If you guessed that Declan and Harper would end up back together, you'd be right! There was a shocking moment towards the end of the book where Harper removed her necklace - given to her by Declan, one of his mother's prized possessions - and placed it in a drawer, adamant that that was the end of them.
'Reaching behind my neck, I unclasp his necklace. I grip the pendant tightly. And then I let go.'
I actually crossed my fingers that that would be the end (because I was reading it on Riveted Lit's Free Reads, I couldn't see how much of the book was still left) because it would have been such an unexpected end. The couple ALWAYS ends up together, and it would have been realistic if they'd become so alienated from each other over the past year that there had been no way for them to fix things; particularly because there's a scene where Declan is extremely verbally abusive towards Harper, and she slaps him. It's very difficult to recover from something like that.
The ending detracts from the effectiveness of the entire book. Throughout, it deals with serious subjects such as bullying, slut shaming and cancer in authentic and heart-breaking ways, candidly discussing the side effects of chemotherapy and the psychological toll on a child caring for an ill parent, not shying away from representing the destructive nature of the disease. But it ends completely focused on the relationship - the other aspects of the novel fade into the background. 
I can understand why it ended where it did: the story is about Harper and Declan's relationship, not Harper's mother's disease or her imminent return to college and daily confrontations with her bullies. However, this makes the book feel unfinished. Harper constantly ruminates on her return to school, and worries about her mother and how the disease is going to effect her in the long-term, so the fact that we don't see either of these play out makes me question why so much time was spent upon them. 
It's disappointing, because I was so impressed with Emily Martin's portrayal of cancer and the effect upon the sufferer as well as upon their family. Harper's mother was a well-rounded character, and the family relationships were dynamic and authentic: their interactions came alive on the page. I would have loved to have read more of that, rather than so much Harper and Declan: couples are ten a penny, but realistic families are much harder to come across.

Emily Martin writes great characters. I loved the supporting cast of Cory, Gwen and Mackenzie, and I would like to see more from each of them (particularly Gwen with her long distance boyfriend - possibly a companion novel?), but her skill really lies in authentic representations of families. Harper's dad is the right amount of strict and caring, while her mother is a strong woman and an interested mother, even though her body is fighting against her. 
I've read a lot of debut novels this year already, but this one stands out: the use of flashbacks to reveal the narrative was effective, and the descriptions of the scenery (most memorably the opening chapter, where Harper is running through trees marked for destruction, trying to find the tree that their treehouse is nestled in) is particularly evocative. 
However, the romance is predictable, which is disappointing. 
I did really enjoy this novel (I'm a sucker for cliches!) and I would still probably stick with the five stars from a purely personal point of view - I've just gone through a break up myself, so I really related to the internal monologues from Harper, berating herself at every possible moment. But I have read books similar to this one before, and it's nothing really new or unique - it stuck to most of the YA contemporary tropes. For these reasons I'm giving it (a very high) three stars.

I'm already looking forward to Emily releasing another novel, because I do enjoy the voices she crafts and she seems unafraid to deal with serious subjects - that's something that will only improve with time, and I'm highly anticipating finding out what she'll choose to write about next. 

Can you think of any good YA contemporaries where the couple DON'T end up together?

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